Maryland’s prisons have teemed with coronavirus. Now, the most vulnerable inmates are getting COVID vaccines.

Nearly nine in 10 Maryland prison inmates who are over 65 or have serious underlying medical conditions have received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, according to Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services data. And the vast majority of corrections officers have been vaccinated as well.

Those are silver linings for a system that for the last year has been racked with far greater incidence of COVID-19 than the general public has. But advocates are calling for more transparency and greater efforts to educate inmates on the vaccines.


Between Feb. 22 and March 5, the department reported 87 new cases among inmates, bringing the total infected in the past year to 4,215. If the system population, currently 18,000, hadn’t turned over any that would mean 23.4% of all inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, but because of inmate turnover that percentage is likely somewhat lower.

In the same two weeks, correctional staff cases grew by 30, to a total of 2,094. About 41.3% of the state’s 5,074 officers have tested positive for COVID-19.


By comparison, the state has reported about 388,666 cases among Marylanders, meaning about 6.4% of residents have been infected.

“The Department continues testing and vaccinating aggressively in accordance with the state-sanctioned priority groups as outlined in Maryland’s Phased COVID-19 Vaccination Distribution Plan,” agency spokeswoman Latoya Gray said in an email.

At least 926 of the approximately 1,040 inmates considered vulnerable to the disease have received at least one vaccine dose and 570 have been fully inoculated, according to the department.

Those inmates qualify in the state’s Phase 1B priority classification, which included teachers and those in assisted living centers and went into effect Jan. 18.

Under Gov. Larry Hogan’s order, “incarcerated adults” will begin receiving vaccination shots in Phase 2 of the plan, which does not have a starting date but is scheduled to begin when all the first-tier recipients have received shots. Others in Phase 2 include essential workers in critical utilities, transportation, logistics, infrastructure, food service and others considered essential, according to Hogan’s plan.

Initially, in a draft plan released in October, the state had categorized all incarcerated people in the first segment of a two-phase plan. But those plans changed as the state expanded the number of phases for the vaccine rollout.

When creating its plan, the state followed U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which “prioritized corrections officers for vaccinations, but did not address inmates,” said Charles Gischlar , a Maryland Department of Health spokesman, in an email.

“Given the very limited supply of vaccines available, state health officials prioritized older adults, those with immunocompromised conditions or at risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19, including some inmates,” Gischlar said.

Those 926 vaccinated inmates represent about 5% of the state’s total incarcerated population.

Corrections officers have been classified as 1A, the top priority group, along with health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, and first responders. As of Tuesday, 4,009 corrections officers ― about 79% ― had received first vaccination doses at on-site clinics, and 3,312 of them ― about 65.3% of all officers ― had received second doses, department spokesman Mark Vernarelli said.

The department added that the totals do not include correctional staff who chose to receive the vaccine at other locations.

As of Tuesday, 17.2% of Marylanders had received at least one dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines; the state is not yet releasing data on Johnson & Johnson vaccinations.

The corrections department this month reported two inmate COVID deaths at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland. A total of 24 inmates and four correctional staff officers have died since the start of the pandemic last year.

At least one variant — the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant that was first detected in the U.K. — has been detected in Maryland’s prisons.

Advocates say the department’s release of vaccine numbers doesn’t address a larger problem of transparency. They say data on the numbers of tests administered to inmates and staff has been elusive, and the state hasn’t disclosed steps it is taking to protect prisoners. They also say the state has not provided the public with enough information about what efforts are being made to educate inmates about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

“The challenge is: We don’t know. There has not been a lot of transparency,” said Keith Wallington, a state-based strategist with the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, advocates for incarcerated people and their families have sought greater protections for inmates who are at a great risk of getting the coronavirus.

A report last month by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that studies criminal justice, said that more than 380,000 prisoners across the country had caught the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

“One of the challenges is it’s a huge trust factor,” said Wallington, noting that many inmates are African Americans leery of taking the vaccine, citing a distrust in medical treatments stemming from events such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and due to a lack of outreach.

A spokesman who represents correctional officers said the department could do more to encourage inmate participation.

“A significant number of officers have been vaccinated, but there is more the department could do to get everyone vaccinated,” said Stuart Katzenberg, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 3, which represents correctional officers.

Katzenberg said he is unaware of efforts to educate inmates on the benefits of getting a vaccine.

Martina Hazelton, co-founder of the Lifer Family Support Network, was aware that older inmates had begun receiving shots. But for many families with incarcerated loved ones, she said, the vaccines can’t come soon enough.

“We all are very fearful,” said Hazelton, whose husband is an inmate at a facility in Western Maryland.

She said her organization, which works to support families of incarcerated people, has heard from a number of families whose loved ones have gotten COVID but have since recovered.


Other families continue to struggle with the limited communication with relatives behind bars, as many prisons instituted lockdowns to decrease viral exposure among officers and inmates. Maryland prisons first looked to lockdowns back in May to deter viral spread. Some prisoners were left isolated inside cells, and criminal justice advocates criticized the practice, citing concern for inmates’ mental health.


“For us, it’s just the extreme lockdown has taken its toll,” Hazelton said. “They are locked down most of the day, which is the department’s answer to social distancing. It’s coming up to a year.”

It’s been a year since she’s visited her husband. For the past year, Hazelton, like others, has been able to communicate with her husband only over video calls for 15 minutes once a week.

“I am hopeful,” Hazelton said of the vaccine. However, she’s concerned many inmates will decline to be vaccinated, including her husband.

“The DOC has not done a good job of educating,” she said. She said inmates have been offered an additional $10 “food bag” as an incentive to get the vaccine. But the effort was not enough and does not address the lack of trust, she said.

Hazelton said public health officials should be allowed to give presentations to inmates directly to assuage their concerns.

“We are still having that conversation,” she said of her husband.

For now, she said, he will not take it.

“He doesn’t trust it.”

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